Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A bridge towards tomorrow

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I met up with a Windigokan at the top of the Salter Street Bridge.

He was dressed in regular clothes, but it was his mask that gave him away. It covered most of his face and was made of blue fabric sewn together, with white strands of fluff hanging off it and blowing in the wind.

His mask was missing the long, crooked nose that most Windigokan have, but there was a hole for his real nose to peek out. He kind of looked like a Mexican wrestler or an oddly dressed super hero.

I looked around and then glanced back at him, trying not to stare. What the heck is a Windigokan doing in the North End?

To most people this Windigokan looked like a homeless person, but I knew different. They're a tricky clan, those contraries. Most people don't even know what a Windigokan is -- and for good reason.

They're called backwards people, healers, clowns, but they are also members of a secret society.

If you're lucky, you'll see the Windigokan on the last day of a Sundance ceremony. When they show up at the camp you aren't supposed to look at them but instead pretend they aren't there. They will chase people who acknowledge their presence. They walk around making a ruckus and collecting gifts people have left behind for them; sometimes money, tobacco or even useful household items like blankets or tea towels.

They make you want to laugh with some of their antics. Just don't leave stuff lying around your camp. If you leave your car keys sitting on a car hood it's up for grabs -- the Windigokan who finds the keys owns it now.

Once inside the Sundance circle the Windigokan will tempt you if you are dancing.

They offer you water after you've gone days without it. They pour it out on the ground right in front of you. Sometimes they hit you with a branch, or yell in your face, trying to distract you from your mission -- which is to dance for the people.

But they aren't evil. If Sundancers are the yin of the ceremony, then Windigokan are the yang. Without them it just wouldn't be the same.

So, like I said, I saw the Windigokan and he saw me, too.

He pulled his children's wagon over to the left; it was piled about four feet high with white plastic bags and a few black garbage bags. I couldn't tell what was in them -- but they looked light, like they'd float away if given a chance.

His wagon took up lots of room so he started rearranging his bags so I could get past him easily with my stroller.

As we came up to him he stood in front of his wagon, with his back turned towards me as I went by. It was a respectful thing to do, and I told him thanks. I noticed how clean his clothes were, and he had no bad smell about him. It was like he'd just jumped out of a steaming shower that morning.

If this wasn't proof he was a Windigokan and not a homeless man, I don't know what is.

Another person -- a teenager on a bike -- was coming from the other direction. He was waiting patiently, too, to pass by us both.

You can tell a lot about strangers you meet on that bridge.

Some people smile, nod or say, "Hi." Other people just walk by in a rush. Others are lost in their own misery -- sometimes I think I can almost feel it.

One time I met this boy on a bike while I was crossing the bridge. He gave me a big sneer, like he was angry we were in the way. I thought "What's wrong with this kid?" Such a beautiful-looking boy and he's angry with everyone, even a woman pushing a baby in a stroller.

A general respect of everything and everyone is something I learned as a kid and it's a lesson I wish everyone knew and followed. You could be the poorest of the poor, but you still deserve human kindness.

Even Windigokan know that. After all, there are a million different tribes and clans in this world, but we're really just a tribe of one. We've all got to look out for each other and respect each other. Seeing the Windigokan might be a sign, a reminder to make sure to get to a Sundance this summer. Even if I can't Sundance because of the baby, maybe I can participate in other ways. I can't wait to go back to the quiet beauty and the lushness of the Qu'Appelle Valley in the summer.

Maybe meeting the Windigokan means I am where I'm supposed to be, and the path I'm on is still the right one.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2011 J6

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